Why This Room is Special
Mary Shelley, 1815
Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.
Mary Shelley was born in 1797 to radical parents: the political philosopher William Godwin and the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft died just days after her daughter was born, leaving young Mary to be raised in her father’s unconventional household.
Mary was a bold and fiercely intelligent child, always inventing stories, or ‘scribbling’ as she called it. She was only seventeen when she began a relationship with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was already married – so the couple would meet in secret, often beside the grave of Mary’s mother in the churchyard of London’s St Pancras Old Church.
Mary fell pregnant, but gave birth prematurely and lost her first daughter in February 1815. She soon became pregnant again, and in May 1816, Mary, Shelley and their infant son travelled to Lake Geneva, to stay with the poet Lord Byron.
It was by that Lake that Mary first conceived of Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus. Challenged by Byron to write a supernatural story, the creation myth of the doctor and his monster came to Mary in her dreams. She was by then pregnant for the third time. It is easy to imagine how such images of abandonment, pregnancy, and childbirth might have shaped her work.
But when the book was published in 1818, the critics were convinced that the author was Percy, not Mary, Shelley. What seemed incredible to them was that Frankenstein, one of the most disturbing studies in literature of both humanity’s potential, and its corruptibility, could have been written by a woman.